Sunday, February 11, 2018

To link or not to link - La Grave sets a new trend?

Half-term is upon us once again, with bookings throughout the French ski resorts reaching record levels thanks to the extraordinary amount of snow that's fallen from the beginning of the season - and it's still snowing now! No real worries at Les Arcs about overcrowded pistes and lift queues:  a new lift every season for the last 15 years means we now have one of the fastest and most modern lifts systems in the world.

Vanoise Express
No doubt the greatest lift achievement of this period was the Vanoise Express, the link between Les Arcs and La Plagne which in 2003 was the largest and fastest cable-car system in the world (the capacity was reduced slightly a few years ago with the installation of the spectacular glass floor in the lower of the double-deck cabins). From this was born Paradiski,  now world famous as the 2nd largest ski area in France.

The Vanoise Express  was one of only a few projects that actually got built at a time when there were dozens of schemes, plans and proposals for connecting ski areas. Planning and environmental restrictions imposed in the 1980s and 1990s made it impossible to build  (or substantially enlarge) new ski resorts in the Alps, so links and connections were seen as the only way to enhance and expand capacity, and to provide dramatic new marketing concepts in an increasingly competitive industry. The marketing effect of 'Paradiski' has been far greater than the actual usefulness of the Vanoise express link (which is generally under-used). 

St Bernard pass between France and Italy
Many of the links that did succeed have become so integrated in the identity of their ski areas that we almost take them for granted, despite the  enormous financial, political and environmental struggles that  preceded their construction: Here  some examples from the  Tarentaise area:

  • La Rosiere - La Thuile (Italy), creating the Espace San Bernardo (1984)
  • Valmorel - St Francois de Longchamp: 'La Grande Domaine' (1982) 
  • Valmorel - Celliers (2008)
  • Tignes-Val d'Isere (1971, in roughly its present form), 'Espace Killy' 
  • The first skiable link between Les Arcs and Peisey-Vallandry was created in the 1980s
  • Bourg St Maurice to Les Arcs, initially a cable car opened in 1974 and replaced by the Funiculaire in 1984.

However there were a number of ambitious schemes that never saw the light of day (although the ideas not necesarily abandoned):

  • Champangy-en-Vanoise - Le Praz (via Bozel), to link La Plagne to Courchevel
  • La Rosiere - St. Foye-la-Tarentaise
  • Pralongon-en-Vanoise - Courchevel 1650
  • Les Contamines - St Gervais/Megeve
  • Morillion (Grand Massif) - Morzine 
  • Alpe d’Huez – Clavans/St Sorlin 
  • Aime - La Roche (La Plagne)
Summit of Dome de la Lauze, 3600m
I was inspired to write all this after reading about a new link controversy between La Grave and Les Deux Alpes, in the Hautes-Alpes region south of here.  The extreme, all off-piste ski area of La Grave, at the foot of the Meije Glacier, is one of the most distinctive ski areas in the world, a mecca for experienced off-piste skiers prepared to take risks in an hostile environment served by only a 40 year old cable-car.  Les Deux Alpes, on the other hand is sprawling, popular ski resort focussed on the intermediate and family skier market.

Denis Creissels
La Grave has effectively been under the control of one man since the 1970s, Denis Creissels who built the original cable-car virtually with his own hands! Evidently a strong character he has successfully resisted pressure from the local commune to enlarge or change La Grave into ski area with wider appeal. 

However in 1976 he did agree to build a drag lift to enable skiers from Les Deux Alpes to access the unforgiving terrain of La Grave. This link, which probably benefited Les Deux Alpes for marketing purposes above all, has always been problematic - at 3600m, the highest surface lift in France, it's prone to snow and wind conditions, and is often closed for long periods and access to the lift involves a snowcat ride or a 20 minute walk. However the biggest headache for La Grave has been inexperienced 'leisure skiers' finding themselves deposited on the 'Mountain of Death' with no guides or means of navigation (there are no pistes and few markers and the upper slopes are notorious for their hidden crevasses).

Denis Creissels, who is now 84, always said he would go on until he was 100 to 'save' La Grave from development, but in the end various pressures led him to retire. Over the last few years various controversies have raged about the future of La Grave, ranging from its complete abandonment to a take-over by the theme-park orientated Compagnie des Alpes who control Les Deux Alpes. 

Finally a new 30 franchise has been granted by the commune to a start-up company SATA, who plan to invest €17 million to modernise and extend the cable-car to the top of the Dome de la Lauze (3560m), creating the 'Aiguille de Midi' of the southern alps..  But they are keen to point out that they will not be installing snowmaking or creating 'easy' pistes - La Grave will retain is unusual and distinctive character. 

So much so that the ancient drag lift link to Les Deux Alpes will be dismantled and there will no longer be access to La Grave 'over the top'.

Perhaps in the future as the ski resort industry  moves further towards 'core lifts' and the concentration of ski activities in compact, accessible areas (like Mille 8 at Arc 1800) at the expense of more remote, high maintenance lifts and pistes more links might disappear. We do seem to be in phase of contraction and distillation at the moment, and I think it's safe to say there certainly won't be any new links between ski resorts in the foreseeable future...


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your update. Like in so many other areas you either go "big" or "niche" in order to succeed a/o survive. Spontaneously I think this is the right move to focus in La Grave. However I would love to see the link to Courchevel and given the increased lift capacity in Tarentaise some more/new prepared piste areas needs to be opened. It can be truly messy with riders occasionally.